Let Them Eat Shit

Minnesota beef producers can begin using radiation to kill bacteria and extend the shelf life of everything from hamburger to filet mignon. But a number of scientists, scrappy idealists, and small farmers still say it's not a good idea.

Radiolytic products are the unpredictable molecules created when food is broken down by radiation and forms electronically charged molecules or atoms which then re-form into bigger molecules. "If you take a chemical and zap it once and get one break, that's one thing. If you zap it 100 times that's another thing. The molecules get crazier and crazier, they're broken apart and put back together in ways that the body has never seen before. These are chemicals that are unique and it's difficult to tell how the body is going to react to them." Van Gemert says that one of the difficult parts of being an FDA toxicologist is that "unfortunately you don't always have a full pot of information on which to make judgements," even when judgements must be made.

Yet scientists such as Mike Osterholm still consider all of the above concerns, except those about nutrient loss, to be at best superstitious flimflam. Osterholm insists that food irradiation is one of the most studied subjects of our day, and points out that the astronauts eat irradiated food, and they're all fine.

Perhaps more than anyone in the state, Osterholm has a unique and urgent view of why meat irradiation would be desirable: He's been at the bedside of children who've died from E. coli O157:H7; he's watched the ravages of kidney failure, the bloody diarrhea, the agonizing pain. Today the Centers for Disease Control say 1,000 children a year develop kidney failure because of E. coli O157:H7 and 3 to 5 percent die. So when Osterholm calls irradiation "ionization pasteurization," when he scoffs at irradiation opponents and blames them for contributing to a public-health crisis, it's hard not to sympathize.

Which still doesn't mean you have to eat irradiated meat. For one thing, you might not even want to. Marian Burros, a food writer for the New York Times, is one of the few people who isn't involved with the beef industry or irradiation research to have actually tried a variety of irradiated meats. She was not impressed. "While the chicken and pork were OK--although the chicken was very dry--the beef is another story," she says. "There's a terrible odor with the ground beef. It's horrible. Even after you cook it that odor remains and the taste is slightly off." Burros describes the odor as that of a barnyard, or of a wet "steamed cow." While she thinks that it might taste all right buried under ketchup, pickles, and the works, the "off" taste isn't one that most people will accept in their kitchens.

Even if you put up with the taste, you may never understand the science. Steven Sapp, an associate professor of sociology at the State University of Iowa at Ames, has been working with consumers for several years to determine their reactions to irradiated food. "Most persons are not going to understand the physics and biology of it, they just have to know who to trust," he says, pointing out that it's easy to play into fears about government and big-business conspiracies, and that dozens of organizations--the World Health Organization, the American Dietetic Association, and the American Medical Association, among others--have endorsed food irradiation.

The final step? "The consumer has to make a decision of who is correct," says Sapp. It's a hard choice: on one side a handful of scientists, a number of scrappy idealists, and small farmers; on the other the government and a network of medical and industrial powerhouses.

"As a practical matter, people will probably have to listen to what the government says," says the Center for Science in the Public Interest's Jacobson. "When there is the question about who are you going to believe, the government is the common denominator even though I commonly disagree with what it says. In any event, the food industry is certainly pushing hard for [food irradiation]. I wish they had pushed just as hard to clean up the food supply over the years."

Where you come down on the decision to accept irradiated beef will probably end up being less of a decision from your head--it's difficult to make sense of conflicting "science" about the safety of food irradiation--than one from your heart. In fact, no matter how the irradiation forces may paint it otherwise, the true battle for meat irradiation is one for your ethical wisdom and soul.

That Costa Rican raspberries, along with all foreign produce, will be irradiated seems all but inevitable and even desirable, considering the other option, that of large-scale Russian roulette with the deadly E. coli O157:H7. The loss here will be tangible, though small. There won't be any reason for raspberry producers to provide raspberry pickers with adequate sanitary facilities, and perhaps delicate raspberries will become less ethereal.

But to embrace American meat irradiation is to take another step down the path to the bifurcation of the food supply: For the poor and the uneducated there will be old meat from factory-farm-raised cows that is processed sloppily, irradiated, and finally prepared sloppily by people so unvalued that they aren't even trusted to fully cook it--$1 burgers laced with deactivated cow shit.

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